Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51:3-4,5-6,12-13,14&17; 2 Cor 5:20-6:2, Matt 6:1-6,16-18
We gather today to celebrate “Ash Wednesday,” the first of forty days of the Lenten Season that precedes Easter. The name “Ash Wednesday” simply comes from the fact that this first day of the 40 days of Lent is always on a Wednesday, and the symbol used to mark this day is a sign of the cross with ashes on our foreheads. Through the ritual of ashes that is symbolic of penance, we are reminded that we as sinners are but dust and ashes. The ashes also remind us that we are in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness; that we need to turn away from sin. Where did this practice come from? Church history tells us that the liturgical practice of applying ashes on one’s forehead at the beginning of the Lenten Season goes back as far as the eight century. This was accompanied by different forms of fasting, prayer, sacrifice, and almsgiving. The first clear evidence of Ash Wednesday is around 960 AD, and in the 12th century people began using palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday for ashes.
Originally, ashes were imposed only on public sinners. These were excluded from the Church from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday. During that 40-day period, they did public penance outside the community of faith; they could not be present for the Eucharist. On Holy Thursday, in a very moving ceremony, they were brought back into the Church, reconciled, and ritually forgiven by the bishop in a dramatic ceremony. As time went on, ordinary sinners asked for the ashes as a sign of their repentance. The ashes given today are a sign that we want to repent; we want to turn our lives around (conversion) in preparation for Easter. The scripture readings for Ash Wednesday highlight this call to conversion. The first reading from the prophet Joel is a clear call to return to the Lord "with fasting, and weeping and mourning." We return with trust because our God is "gracious and merciful...slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment." The prophet Joel does not call only for individual conversion. His appeal is to the entire community. "Blow the trumpet in Zion, proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast." Imitating that biblical tradition and later penitents over the centuries, we all become a community of penitents seeking to grow closer to God through repentance and renewal. With a different tone, Paul appeals to us in the second reading to "be reconciled to God." He insists that "Now is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation." In other words, the time to return to the Lord is now, this holy season, this very day. The Gospel for Ash Wednesday gives us good advice on how we are to act during Lent. Jesus speaks of the three main disciplines of the season: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. All of these spiritual activities, Jesus teaches us, are to be done without any desire for recognition by others. There is a certain irony used the Gospel! We are told to wash our faces so that we do not appear to be doing penance. Yet on Ash Wednesday we go around with "dirt" on our foreheads! This is just another way of Jesus reminding us not to perform religious acts for public recognition. We don't wear the ashes to proclaim our holiness but to acknowledge publicly that we are indeed a community of sinners in need of repentance and God’s mercy. May Ash Wednesday be the beginning of our spiritual transformation and reconciliation with God. May our prayer, fasting and almsgiving be effective means of deepening our relationship with God during this season.
©2018 John S. Mbinda